How do you start a story?

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Children want to write but teachers complain that most of what they produce in class is a rehash of Harry Potter, says James Campbell

here do you get your ideas from? This is a question I am asked about seven or eight times a week by primary children. I'm sure that other visiting writers must get asked it as well. It makes me wonder if one of the difficulties children have with their writing is getting the inspiration to start.

They hear twisting tales and read enchanting stories filled with ideas that set their minds on fire and so some of them want to do the same to others. They want to communicate. They want to write. So where do the ideas come from?

When I read the "star stories" on assembly hall walls, I see hundreds of fantastically original pieces of work, but teachers tell me that their children tend to write hackneyed versions of the film they saw last weekend or rehash Harry Potter.

So I think to myself: "Where do my ideas come from?" When asked by eager eight-year-olds I tell them that ideas are everywhere and you just have to see them, hear them, notice them. I tell them that sometimes it feels like a spell has been cast on my mind but at other times there is no magic to it at all: there is a muscle in the head for having ideas and the more you use it the stronger it grows.

This week, I had a whole five days without any school bookings. This is unusual for me, so I thought I had better do something creative with the time.

I'm sort of writing a children's novel at the moment and I decided that, with five days to concentrate, I should be able to get a chunk of it written or at least planned. Unfortunately, my creative plans didn't go quite as I hoped. On Monday, I wandered around the flat trying to decide if frogs have ears. Tuesday told me that frogs didn't have ears. Wednesday made me wonder if frogs would make good boxers as the Evander Holyfield danger wouldn't apply.

Thursday brought me news that the phrase "Mad as a boxer frogs" might have some punning value. I spent most of Friday playing a computer gme. So my creative week has achieved nothing. My point - I do have one - is that when setting children creative writing tasks we seem to expect all 30 of them to be feeling creative when we want them to. We also want them to only be creative for an hour or so and then switch to maths or Highland dancing.

I spent 40 hours this week trying to get into a writerly mood. I failed. Though it's my job. So remember how difficult it is for them. The most important skill for a junior writer to learn is how to daydream. The problem is, of course, this isn't always possible in school.

An interesting and rewarding thing can be to try writing with them. I find writing workshops work best when I create with the children rather than have a fixed plan. The ebb and flow of the collective conscience is like a churning sea. If I can be a moon and direct their tides, anything can happen and a whole ocean of metaphors can be overextended.

The problem is that most teachers are not writers and neither are most children. Although received wisdom seems to be to try to teach children the techniques of a professional writer, the ones who will grow up to write professionally will probably learn nothing at school that will help them. (You can't teach magic.) And as for the rest . . . is there any point teaching creative writing to the rest? Do you need alliteration while stacking shelves? Does knowledge of "beginnings, middles and ends" help the working lives of the midwife, the broker and the undertaker?

I know that the process of thinking creatively and being creative is something that everyone can benefit from. Maybe the end product is irrelevant. Maybe everyone can have ideas. Maybe daydreaming should be on the curriculum.

Incidentally, a flash of inspiration did come to me. On Wednesday I think. And it had nothing to do with frogs or ears. It's an idea for an article for The TES Scotland.

James Campbell is a writer and contemporary professional storyteller. In the past six years, he has visited more than 700 primary schools in Scotland.

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